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Defeat of the Will

Dictators sure do like to take all the credit. Mostly because they deserve it. Their notoriety permeates history often with little more than a single name, like Caesar, Napoleon, or Stalin. Hitler was no exception and yet he was little more than a humdrum artist harboring a primitive ideology with a merciless entourage to back him up, blindly executing his orders because that's where the power lay. Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall ("Der Untergang") is an intriguing portrait of Adolf Hitler and his closest advisors during the last days of the Third Reich as Berlin fell to the Allies, bringing World War II to an end in Europe.

Confined to his bunker below Nazi headquarters in Berlin, Hitler (Bruno Ganz) rules his roost consisting of various generals and ministers -- some of them petty powerbrokers themselves -- who are too scared to tell the Führer that Germany is losing the war, and badly. Battalions of soldiers that he commands to be moved from point A to B simply do not exist anymore, lines of communication have been severed, and supplies of ammunition and food are dwindling, if not depleted. Tensions are running high, to put things mildly.

Into this volatile mix comes a young woman, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is hired as Hitler's secretary to type up his increasingly inflammatory dictations. As she learns about life and work in the bunker, we realize the scope of the madness surrounding her. Bombs are falling, the Soviet Red Army is closing in, lights are flickering, people are executed, children are "put to sleep" -- and all that Hitler's girlfriend, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), wants to do is party.

Based on the German bestseller, "Inside Hitler's Bunker," as well as the firsthand account by secretary Junge -- herself interviewed in the mesmerizing 2002 documentary, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" -- Downfall goes to great lengths to convey Hitler's last days as they actually happened. The sets are claustrophobic, the lighting is natural-source, and the acting is superb. Ganz researched Hitler's unusual accent and mannerisms exhaustively to get them right. The result: a truly frightening, deluded, small man. No wonder the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Ganz could win an Oscar alone for his seething -- and yet he does not stoop to caricature.

Downfall's only downfall are its forays above ground to show the larger, equally insane context in which Berlin fell. Children operate artillery because there are no more soldiers available; renegade militia execute civilians because they won't go on suicide missions. It's all powerful stuff. However, besides contributing to the longish 156-minute running time, it detracts from the interesting confines of the psychological torture chamber below ground, where Germany's fate lies in the hands of a delusional control freak who seeks to exact revenge on the very people he ruled with an iron fist for a dozen years.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5